Diocese of Ohio couple in national spotlight for outreach to Haitian asylum seeker

December 20, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Two Episcopalians, a husband and wife from Ohio, are receiving national recognition for their outreach to a Haitian man who recently was released from federal detention after spending more than two years behind bars waiting for a decision on his request for asylum.

Not only was Ansly Damus released while his legal case proceeds, but he has been welcomed into Cleveland Heights home of the couple who championed his cause, Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin. Living with the couple was one of two court-approved conditions of his release, the other being that he wear a monitoring bracelet on his ankle.

Benjamin’s and Hart’s nearly yearlong support for Damus and for his efforts to win release were detailed by the Washington Post in a 3,000-word feature story that appeared as the centerpiece on the cover of the newspaper’s Dec. 17 print edition. It also can be found online here.

“There is no question that Mr. Damus’ access to a just process was entirely the result of Melody and Gary’s relentless advocacy on his behalf,” Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth Jr. said in a written statement to Episcopal News Service. “They are a model of what is means when we vow in our Baptismal Covenant to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’

“It is not only Ansly Damus who has benefited from their faithfulness, but each of us. They have held us and our justice system accountable for his treatment.”

Hollingsworth’s office and the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C., offered logistical support for Benjamin and Hart, who are members of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. An Office of Government Relations staff member also helped transmit letters from Damus to his family back in Haiti.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has frequently passed resolutions in support of immigrants, including those seeking asylum. A resolution from 2015 specifically called for “an immediate release of detained asylum seekers.”

The Post story notes the Ohio couple first heard about Damus’ case from a friend who is involved in immigrant justice issues. Hart told the Post she remembers saying simply, “We’ll do whatever we can.” That turned out to be quite a lot.

Damus, 42, was an ethics professor in Haiti whose criticism of a local politician with suspected ties to gangs resulted in threats of violence to him and his family. He chose to flee, at first to Brazil, and in 2016 he presented himself to American authorities on the Mexico border and asked for asylum, following procedures outlined by U.S. immigration law.

Federal authorities took him to a detention center in Ohio and continued to hold him, saying they considered him a flight risk. Hart and Benjamin, in addition to visiting Damus and sending Damus dozens of supportive letters, rallied others in their congregation and social circles to show he had a community willing to welcome him with open arms.

They brought 32 of those supporters with them by bus for Damus’ recent hearing in a federal courtroom in Michigan, which prompted the federal judge to remark that it was clear Damus had “a community that cared about him,” according to the Post’s report.

“I hope this shows that people in this country care about what’s happening to him,” Hart said in the Post story. “He has to believe that he’s come to the right place.”

The judge chose to delay a ruling that day on Damus’ prolonged detention, but federal authorities decided to offer a deal for Damus’ release rather than wait for a ruling, the Post reported.

Now Benjamin and Hart are Damus’ official sponsors, allowing him to live with them as he and his lawyer continue to pursue a victory on his asylum request.

“Today I am so happy,” he said on the day of his release, as Hart and Benjamin prepared to drive him home.

The plight of asylum seekers has become a hot-button political issue in the United States, with the Trump administration seeking to limit the number of such immigrants allowed into the country. On Dec. 20, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would require asylum seekers at the Mexican border to wait in Mexico while their claims are under review. It wasn’t immediately clear if such a policy would apply to a case like Damus’.

“Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a news release that provides no specifics on how widespread such cases are.

The release notes that the U.S. is dealing with a backlog of more than 786,000 pending asylum claims.

President Donald Trump also was criticized last fall for using and amplifying language that demonized a migrant caravan from Central America in the runup to the congressional midterm elections. Trump’s claims that asylum seekers were invading the United States were widely seen as a misleading tactic intended to drive conservative voters to the polls – a tactic he immediately dropped after the election.

The Office of Government Relations has called on Episcopalians to raise their voices on such issues based on General Convention’s resolutions on immigration policy.

“Most of the individuals in the caravan are asylum seekers and are fleeing dangerous unstable conditions,” the Office of Government Relations said in an October fact sheet on the Central American migrants. “The U.S. has a responsibility to respond to those seeking asylum in a humanitarian way that complies with international law. Deterring asylum seekers or turning them back is unlawful and inhumane.”

The fact sheet also says detention is “not the solution.”

“Compassion – not brutality – will help people fleeing violence now and prevent others from needing to flee,” the office said. “When someone fears for their life or the lives of their family members, cruel tactics like detention or family separation will not work. We should respond in an orderly, sensible and compassionate manner to these families.”

Damus also was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that contested the Trump administration’s detention policies. A judge ruled in July that detainees like Damus could not continue to be held arbitrarily after clearing certain hurdles in the asylum process, and the government must conduct case-by-case reviews to determine if “humanitarian parole” is warranted, according to an NPR report.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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